is the author, most recently, of the Jersey Shore novel "This Is the Story of You."
My uncle, my favorite uncle, chose the sea. He chose the dunes, the birds, the front-porch rockers, the painted ladies of Cape May. The anonymity of summer crowds. The quietude of winter.
We understood that his bungalow home was a private place where his work got done - the ornaments he built from pins and pearls and velvet ribbons, the collections he curated for his antiques show, the books he wrote about flea-market finds, Libbey hats, coralene, and bitters bottles. We were content with the home he could extend - his beach, his bench, his fudge shop, his restaurants, the crowded bins of sand dollars and crystals at his Whale's Tale on Washington Street Mall.
Wearing rolled trousers and celebrity shades, he would meet us wherever we were. In the warm tidal pools into which we had sunk our barefoot weight. By the horseshoe crab husk we had found at dusk. By the shade of the abandoned lifeguard chair. On the porch of the Chalfonte for afternoon lemonade. On the streets where we walked in full appreciation of the taffy-colored houses and twin gables, the fretwork and the pebble gardens.
He was my mother's brother - older than she was and taller, too. They had laughter between them. Stories I would never know the start of. But I entertained the illusion that, in the unacknowledged skirmish for my uncle's greatest affection, I always won. I was the one (I thought, I was a child, a middle child) to whom he'd tell his most fantastic secrets. I was the one to whom he'd whisper the most outrageous gossip, for whom he'd find, during his flea-market hunts, the most preposterously perfect gifts.
He died abruptly on a Thanksgiving Day. He never met my son. I remain heartbroken.
Not long ago my husband and I drove to Cape May in search of a place where memory might be revived and memoir taught. The expedition was the next chapter in this next chapter of our lives. We have left corporate America behind. The books, brochures, and reports we'd created. The conversations we'd had. The uncomfortable gnawing at our souls. We had done work we'd loved for people we'd respected, but now our kind of work was gone - we sustained forced-fit status within transitioned cultures until we were no fit at all.
So here we were, betting on our passions through a new venture. Memoir workshops in extraordinary landscapes (my teaching, his planning). Memoir news (my writing, his art and design). Memoir video shorts (my celebrations of memoirists, his man-behind-the-lens finesse). Our first five-day workshop on a Pennsylvania farm was booked. Our second, we hoped, would take place by this sea, beneath these birds, within a painted lady we would rent for five straight days.
I wanted to teach the past with the past beside me. I wanted my uncle's gossip in my ear, the creak of his rocking chair, the tantalizing possibilities of his secrets. I wanted to walk the beach and see a glimpse of us - the girl I was when I was with him. Poetical already. Complicated, always. Naive and naively stubborn. Not yet charted, not yet recorded, not yet critiqued or (it will happen no matter how many memoirs you write) incompletely known.
My husband and I walked the streets. We stood before the old photos of Congress Hall. We had our sodas at Stewarts, walked along the foam of the sea toward those planted World War II bunkers, found ourselves in the bird sanctuary where muskrats were at work on reedy constructions and swans sat implacably on ponds and birders expectantly followed their leaders with binoculars and big-nosed cameras.
The next morning we set out for the beach again, this time in the opposite direction, where there were khaki-colored boards on Morrow's Nut House windows and no one but us at the wind-swept Convention Hall. The waves were slapping at the jutted rocks. The footprints in the sand were ours.
One week later we returned to Cape May to walk the big old house - sweet pink, mint green, fresh lavender, pale yellow - we had chosen from the street. A living room big enough for 20. A dining-room table that can fit 18. Room upon room of Victorian things. A wide wrapped porch with what seemed like dozens of rockers. And there, diagonally across the street, the generous front porch of the Chalfonte, where my uncle and I once sat - me with my lemonade, he with his iced tea. Soon he would be gone.
We're at a crossroads, my husband and I. A juncture. I'm choosing to believe in us. I return to remembering, alongside my uncle's sea.
Beth Kephart can be reached through Juncture Workshops. junctureworkshops.com.